Dear Word Detective: I have just recently discovered your column by virtue of being gifted your book and became an instant fan. Perhaps you can help me suss out the mystery behind one of my favorite songs? Shortly before his death Warren Zevon released an album including a song titled “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks,” which a quick Googling reveals to be a mountain range in Ireland. However, “reeks” seems only to refer to offensive odors rather than scenic hills. How, if at all, are these related? — Will Voorhies.
Thanks. I’m an instant fan of your first sentence, because your use of “gift” as a verb is going to drive the Usage Cops nuts. But when they come banging on your door, just point out that “gift” has been used as a verb since the 16th century by writers, including heavy hitters such as Henry Fielding and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“The world must love and fear him Whom I gift with heart and hand,” 1844). Warren Zevon is on my short list of folks I really wish were still around, a list that also includes Hunter Thompson, Carl Sagan, Phil Ochs and Abbie Hoffman. Oh well. And I’ve always thought that history would have been different had Buddy Holly lived longer. I’m fairly certain he could have stopped the Beach Boys.
There are actually three “reeks” in English. The oldest, which first appeared in Old English, is “reek” as a noun meaning “a bad or noxious smell” and, as a verb, “to stink, to strongly emit a noxious odor.” Both the noun and the verb derive from ancient proto-Germanic roots, but followed very complex and twisting routes into English. The noun “reek,” for instance, comes from slightly different roots than the verb “to reek.” In any case, the original sense of “reek” centered on smoke from something burning (and the verb meant “to emit smoke”), but our modern “reek” covers nearly anything that smells very foul, even figuratively (“I’m certain he’s miserable and lonely. Dunwood House reeks of commerce and snobbery and all the things he hated most,” E.M. Forster, 1907).
We can treat the second kind of “reek” as a rest stop, because it’s an obscure noun meaning “seaweed” and it’s been obsolete since the 17th century.
That brings us to “reek” as found in “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks” on Zevon’s 2002 album “My Ride’s Here.” This “reek” is an Irish English noun meaning “a hill or mountain.” The title of the song refers to a striking mountain range in County Kerry, in the southwest corner of the Republic of Ireland. According to Wikipedia (caveat lector, as usual, but they do have some nice pictures of the range), MacGillycuddy’s Reeks was named for a clan that lived there, Mac Giolla Mochuda, which was eventually Anglicised to MacGillycuddy.
The “reeks” part of the name of the range does not refer to the smell of the mountains, which is probably quite nice, heather and all sorts of flowers and whatnot. This “reek” is an Irish form of the more familiar English word “rick,” meaning “a pile of something.” One again, things get a bit confusing here, word-history-wise, but it appears that both the English “rick” and the Old Irish form “cruach” (which became “reek”) came from the same Indo-European root (which also produced the equivalent “rook” in Dutch, “rauk” in Norwegian, and “rok” in Swedish).
In any case, “rick” first appeared in Old English meaning “a stack of corn, hay, etc.,” especially one formed into a neat shape and thatched for protection from the weather. “Ricks” in farmers’ fields were long a common sight in Britain, and provided impromptu shelter to travelers, fugitives, and the merely hopelessly lost in many novels (“That night she took refuge from the Samaritan … under a farmer’s rick,” Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865). In the US, a “rick” usually means a stack of wood cut to uniform measure (four feet high by eight feet long, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
By the 17th century, all this hay and wood notwithstanding, “rick” had come into use in a more general sense to mean simply a pile of anything (“Mr. Bass … had seen the animal scratching among the dry ricks of sea-weed thrown up upon the shores,” 1807), although it seems most often used in reference to a pile of something deliberately piled and stored for later use (“The tubers stored in these houses are carefully assorted and sacked, and the sacks piled in ricks,” 1913).
Lastly, since someone is bound to ask, “suss” as you used it to mean “figure out” originated as police slang in the UK around 1953. It comes from “suspect” and originally meant “to suspect a person of a crime,” but it broadened to meaning “to imagine or surmise,” finally reaching its modern slang sense of “to understand or explain.”